| Brennan Woo
It’s day 187 of quarantine and you’ve lost track of which day it actually is. Is it even still the weekend? You miss your friends, your family, your routine. Sleep isn’t coming very easily and you’re feeling down more often than normal.
Living in the time of a pandemic is new to everyone and, for most, it’s been a bumpy ride. For some, a rollercoaster. There are probably a select few out there who would say isolation has been wonderful - maybe the anti-social have really been thriving somehow.
Quarantine has a lot of us wondering, how much of a toll is isolation taking on my mental health?
“Several indicators of social isolation have been associated with poor health,” says Dr. Clifford Singer, Adjunct Professor at the University of Maine and director of the Mood and Memory Clinic at Acadia Hospital, and Alzheimer’s Disease Research Program for Acadia Hospital and Eastern Maine Medical Center. Dr Singer explains that the effects of social isolation and loneliness have on an individual’s health are significant enough that they are commonly and consistently cited as risk factors for poor health and higher risk of mortality.
Pandemic isolation and mental health are a hot topic these days, and it’s easy to see the correlation and understand the concern since so many of us are experiencing some sort of effects first-hand.
“The fact is, most of us are psychologically and biologically ‘programmed’ to need social networks...it is logical that social isolation may impose stress on our minds and bodies that has a significant impact on health.”
Effects of isolating yourself
Loneliness is perceived isolation - you can have plenty of friends and interactions but still feel lonely - while social isolation can actually be measured by the degree of your social disconnectedness (infrequent contact or a small social network). Most of us are probably feeling and experiencing a little bit of both during this time of quarantine.
We are all trying to do our part to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. We follow our local mandates and do our best to live by the guidelines provided by health experts so that we can collectively be freed from isolation. But what are we sacrificing for the sake of civic duty?
SOCIAL ISOLATION SYMPTOMS
So how can you tell if you are in fact at risk of any of the health impacts of loneliness? Let’s take a look at some of the reported symptoms of loneliness.
Inability to focus. Your brain hasn’t had much stimulation from lack of social engagement and so it has begun to wander frequently. When you do intend to complete a task, you then find yourself getting side-tracked and distracted very easily.
- Increase in restlessness or anxiety. Being cooped up for long periods of time means we have a built up desire to do something or go somewhere - but you can’t! So frustrating.
- Insomnia. This is especially prevalent in young adults who are more likely to live alone, and therefore are quarantined alone.
- Decrease in immune function. Lack of sleep and increased levels of anxiety most certainly take a toll on your immune system. It is highly recommended that during this time of uncertainty and an infectious disease running rampant that we fortify our immune system with supplements. OWL’s Immunity Booster reduces inflammation and increases cellular production. Much needed in these shifting times.
- Decrease in overall energy. Not being able to go to your regular fitness class or meet up with your friends for your normal jog around the neighborhood can lead to a sedentary lifestyle. This can drain you of the energy that regular exercise stimulates.
LONG TERM EFFECTS OF SOCIAL ISOLATION
Dr. Singer says that the adverse effects on health from loneliness can cascade into all stages of life. We might not experience these complications during this pandemic, however, they have a high possibility of manifesting later on as we age.
The stress put on the body as a result of social isolation puts individuals at a higher risk of early death due to cardiovascular issues, high cholesterol, and other chronic diseases such as diabetes. These conditions are tied to the psychological distress brought on by loneliness including depression. According to Dr. Singer, depression can increase blood platelet accumulation through diminished serotonin function which leads to an increased risk for stroke. Additionally, poor sleep quality and high amounts of stress over time will lead to an increased risk for cognitive decline.
“Social stimulation can help maintain brain health...there are studies that do suggest increasing social networks can improve health.”
However, when we look at the bright side, there is a counteraction for every symptom listed above.
How to overcome social isolation
Okay, enough with the heavy. There are some things we can’t control (like the pandemic), and some things over which we have total control (like our mindset and our actions). Below are some suggested lifestyle tips to feed our natural hunger for a meaningful life and human contact. Even if it is socially distanced.
CONNECT WITH LOVED ONES VIRTUALLY
Most adults don’t live with other nuclear family members. When the country went into quarantine, a lot of us were physically cut off from mom and dad, brother and sister. If you were one of the lucky ones, at least you are snuggled up with your spouse or partner instead of at the office all day. Maybe you also get to enjoy the ever-present laughter of your children.
But for those of us who are happily single, enjoy our space, and particularly savor our alone time, we’ve filled our quota and are ready for human interaction once again (we’ve been ready for a long time). That is the beauty of technology. Even though we can’t see one another in person, we can still talk, facetime, and video chat with our loved ones. Maybe this is the perfect time to reach out to grandma or grandpa as well. If you’re feeling lonely, you can bet they are too.
TAKE A BREAK FROM SOCIAL MEDIA
Although technology has been pivotal in bringing faraway family and friends closer together, it has also become a thorn in the side of many. We often see those dreamy vacation photos or wondrous snapshots from unfathomable date nights that get us wondering “How do they afford to take all of this vacation time?” and “Why can’t I find someone who will sweep me off my feet with a romantic getaway like that?”
There is nothing wrong with others celebrating their wins and joys - in fact celebrating with them can do great things for your own mental health. If you’re a believer in karma, it’s good to put those positive vibes out into the universe. But sometimes seeing others flourish and can cause deep self-reflection that unintentionally leads to a blackhole of disappointment. We begin comparing our lives to others and fail to see all the beautiful gifts we already have.
“Don’t let your ice cream melt while you’re counting someone else's sprinkles.”
TAKE A WALK OUTSIDE AND MAKE MORE TIME FOR EXERCISE
Enjoy the outdoors! Going outside is one event in 2020 that hasn’t been cancelled. Sunlight is known to trigger the production of serotonin, the feel-good hormone in your body. In many cultures, it is a belief that simply being among trees can greatly improve one’s mental health. So it’s only natural that we would suggest going out into nature, hiking, camping - socially distanced, of course - to help boost your mood.
Exercise also gives you a serotonin boost. It doesn’t have to be a huge time and effort commitment - we’re not saying you need to go run ten miles every day. But a light jog around your block, a bike ride, some calisthenics, or a few bodyweight movements to get your body move is certainly a quick mood booster.
Helping others is an obvious but overlooked source of happiness. Right now, there are a lot of families in need of basic supplies due to the economic effects of the pandemic. There are many local organizations working hard to help the less fortunate in their community and they are low on volunteers.
Safely lending a hand can work wonders for your own state of mind. Giving back with your time is incredibly fulfilling and very meaningful to others.
FIND A NEW HOBBY
Hobbies that are meaningful, fulfilling, and rewarding are a great way to take your mind off the worries and woes that come with self-isolation. Having a wide variety to choose from will ensure the longevity of staying mentally engaged throughout long bouts of limited human contact.
Some ideas we have are learning a musical instrument (there are plenty of online resources including human teachers that are looking for work!), read or listen to a new book, gardening and growing your own food (that means less trips to the grocery store!), learning a new language (there are a gah-jillion apps for that). Simply put: fill your day with things that bring you joy.
ADOPT A FURRY FRIEND
Dr. Singer says, “There is an increasing amount of evidence that pets, especially dogs and cats, are associated with health benefits and reduced mortality.” Of course the pitter patter of paws would be uplifting music to your ears. See how your calendar fills up with trips to the park for play time and to the coffee shop for your pup’s favorite treat. Taking your dog (or even your cat!) out for a walk gets your body that movement and sunlight we talked about earlier, and now you have a friend to bring along.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
At the end of the day, only you can make the final call on how you're feeling and what makes you happy. When all else fails, reach out to someone who loves you and that you trust. Times can be hard right now, but if we intentionally search for the gifts we’ve been given, no matter how simple, can help us cope with the complexities of being alone.